Why Today's Wine Lists Need Radical Change

A mere price sheet is not enough anymore
Sep 4, 2012

Pity the sommelier. First, there was the push to get respect. So they sought to professionalize their métier by creating credentials such as Master Sommelier. Above all, they made theirs a serious, worthwhile vocation by being long-term professionals in their field, as opposed to out-of-work actors and actresses who offered glib wine patter.

Today's American sommeliers are among the best in the world. They're smart, savvy, deeply knowledgeable, ambitious and even fashionable.

They've effectively dispensed with the cobwebbed hauteur that once characterized (and stigmatized) this line of work. I can't remember the last time I saw an overweight guy in a tuxedo or a black leather apron, the bling of a shiny silver tastevin hanging around his neck on a heavy chain like some wannabe wine rapper.

So bravo to the modern "somm." Now for the sting in the tail: Your wine lists are unusable.

I know, I know. You're killing yourselves finding really interesting wines for us to try. I'm all admiration. Hell, you made Grüner Veltliner. If it wasn't for American somms, Austrian wine producers would still be yodeling to each other in the dark.

But now it's time for you to accept another role, and yet more work. Right now, the typical wine list is about as useful as an old-fashioned newspaper stock market table. Who can really read them? And how are we supposed to know what to invest in?

Today's best wine lists offer multiple hundreds of wines, the great majority of which are utterly unknown to all but a handful of—let's be honest here—wine geeks.

It's simply not enough anymore for wine lists to be just price sheets. Here's the vintage, the wine name, the producer and the price. Good luck!

Sommeliers can—and do—say that clients can inquire about a wine or ask for a suggestion. But who's kidding whom? A diner can't ask for information about even a dozen wines, let alone hundreds.

So let's get practical. We restaurant-goers need discreet help, and you sommeliers are the ones who are supposed to provide it. So what's to be done?

I would like to propose several ideas, recognizing that every restaurant is different and that no single revisionist notion about a 21st-century wine list is appropriate for all restaurants.

That noted, I do think that whatever the presentation of the list, an effective 21st-century somm has to be more of an educator than ever before.

Put simply, it's not enough to pick great wines and serve them deftly. You've now got to be able to write concisely. To educate diplomatically. To inform pithily. So how about these ideas:

The Showcase Short List Solution Let's say yours is an ambitious restaurant with an extensive wine list. A simple short list, which is currently a wine fashion trend, just won't cut it. Fair enough.

In such a situation I would compose a shorter list of, say, 30 wines that are grabbing my sommelier fancy this week, this month, whatever. This showcase short list would be included with the (much larger) regular list. But unlike the regular list, I would give for each wine on the short list an explanation of why it's grabbing my sommelier fancy.

Recently, I visited a tiny producer in southern Oregon called Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden. (They grow vegetable crops as well as grapes.) I've mentioned their wines before—various Rhône grapes such as Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache and Syrah—but I'd never visited the property until recently.

In the course of chatting with the owners it became clear that in terms of a conventional wine list, they are simply out of luck, because they're "nowhere." (Cowhorn is 9 miles from the California border.) Outside of the area, who has a section on “southern Oregon” wines? No one. Moreover, if you're not growing Pinot Noir, you're not part of the "Oregon club" on a wine list. You get the picture.

So here's a terrific producer—one of hundreds in the world—that absolutely needs to be showcased and explained in order to be sold. And that is simply not going to happen in the format of a conventional name-rank-and-serial-number wine list.

This is why a showcase short list is ideal. The modern sommelier must now educate as well as select. And that education, however brief and concise, must convey both erudition and enthusiasm. It most certainly isn't a matter just of points. Or even of quoting someone else. We need insight, passion and a story we can drink.

The iPad Solution When I've raised this issue of the failure—that's the only word for it—of modern wine lists, several readers have hustled to say that tablet computers, such as Apple's iPad, are the answer. It offers unlimited room, they point out. And it's easily updated to accurately reflect current inventory. (I can't tell you the number of times I've ordered a wine only to be told, "We're so sorry, it just went out of stock.")

To me, these tablet computer wine lists seem gimmicky. But maybe I'm just old-fashioned. I do see their high-tech attraction. (And yes, I do own a tablet.) But I'm looking less for encyclopedic information and more for a concise, compelling enthusiasm. Maybe I'm missing something here. You tell me. Still, it's clearly a viable option.

The Symbol Solution I first saw this simple idea in Venice, at one of that city's greatest restaurants, Al Covo. Cesare Benelli, the chef-owner of Al Covo, is a great wine lover as well as, to use an old-fashioned term, a free thinker.

Mr. Benelli has a fine palate as well as strong opinions. His wine list, which changes weekly, has a couple hundred wines, some of which are annotated with a heart symbol. The list explains that the heart symbol signals “wines that, in our judgment, we appreciate for their uniqueness.”

In conversation, Mr. Benelli amplified his approach. “Those are the wines I really love. They’re really unusual wines, which, I have to say, may not be to the conventional taste.”

I like this simple annotation approach, which of course is something that the Michelin Red Guide long ago raised to a near-hieroglyphic art form.

Sommeliers could choose their preferred symbols and explain what they signify. For example, symbols signifying wines that are, in the sommelier's opinion, cutting edge. Or a new discovery. Or unconventionally made. Or grown at a high elevation, or with an ultra-low yield. Or ideal for a certain type of food. Or a tremendous value. Or oak-free. You could really be creative with this.

One thing is certain, at least to me. Given the vast, bewildering array of wines offered to us today by the best sommeliers in the most ambitious restaurants, using the same kind of price sheet that restaurants gave their guests a century ago (when the wine selection was a simple handful of well-known wines) fails miserably.

Are you satisfied with today's ambitious wine lists? Isn't there a better way for us to navigate a 21st-century restaurant wine list?

Opinion

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